Taking the big stick to single parents is not the answer

Single mothers such as Michelle Daly have high aspirations for their children. Reducing their payments won’t help achieve them. AAP/Lukas Coch

New legislation was passed last week to move single parents off the parenting payment, and onto the Newstart Allowance once their youngest child turns eight. Advocates for this change suggest that the legislation will push certain groups to get off “welfare” and into work which will end “the corrosive aimlessness of welfare”.

We know that the Newstart Allowance is considerably less money than the parenting payment, and the government intends to save around $700 million through the shift. This measure, and others introduced earlier in the year to tighten the rules for teenage mothers, is specifically designed to actively combat “intergenerational welfare dependence”.

These policies commenced under the previous Coalition and Labor governments and aim to change the personal behaviour of certain groups who are seen as being reliant on welfare.

But does a big stick work?

A new report into poverty by the Australian Council of Social Service finds that almost half of all Australian children living in poverty are in single-parent families; and 25% of single-parent families live below the poverty line.

Our research at the Institute for Child Protection Studies has indicated that all parents, including single parents and young parents, are very aware of the role employment can play in improving their lives and the wellbeing of their children. Many young mothers are very keen to start planning for this next stage of their lives, including for education and employment. They take on board the idea that employment and training is a way out of poverty. Almost all the younger mothers involved in one study spoke of the wish to create a safe and secure future for their children, and their desire to find a good steady job.

The recent legislative changes regarding the need for young mothers (particularly single mothers) to engage in education and employment reflect a commonly held stereotype that these people are resisting pursuing these goals. However, the findings from a range of our studies refute this stereotype and provide a more nuanced understanding of the barriers that stand in the way of sole parents achieving their hopes and dreams for themselves and their children.

Our research has also shown that parents who are on the more “generous” parenting payment already struggle financially, with many families concerned about not having enough money to ensure their children’s basic needs are met. A reduction in income support of up to $100 per week could have a significant impact upon parents’ ability to pay for normal everyday activities for their family, including services such as childcare.

The increased participation requirements attached to the Newstart Allowance may also, in some instances, compound financial disadvantage. Almost a quarter of the parents we interviewed had a child with special needs, including physical and intellectual disabilities, developmental delays, or serious behavioural, emotional, psychological or health issues. Parents spoke about the ripple effects that these unmet or ongoing needs had on their families. They experienced high levels of stress that placed pressure on family relationships, leading to an increased risk of family breakdown.

While health services, schools and other services play a critical role in assisting parents to meet the needs of their children, the increased participation requirements can place an increased burden upon these families, and particularly those with children or other relatives with special needs.

One single mother living in a regional town, whose 12-year-old son had a heart attack, was required to travel frequently to the capital city over many months for treatment. In the aftermath of this major life event, the parent reported constant battles with Centrelink about meeting her job-seeking requirements. She felt she needed to be there for her son and other children, and just needed more time.

Many of the families involved in our research experience multiple disadvantage and key barriers that prevent them from participating fully in society. Families experiencing these issues (such as domestic and family violence and mental health issues) also appear to be more likely to experience other problems, such as homelessness, severe financial disadvantage and children’s behavioural and emotional problems.

Governments can and should assist parents in poverty to develop and reach their goals, including employment.

However, policy and service responses should be cautious about future directions which further stigmatise mothers, particularly young mothers. Doing so can actually undermine their willingness (and sometimes their ability) to engage with formal and informal support systems.

While the government seeks to save $700 million by reducing welfare payments, they might consider that further compounding the financial disadvantage of vulnerable children, young people and families will likely lead to a much higher long-term cost incurred in supporting these families who experience the fall out of reduced income support.

This article was co-authored by Erin Barry, Communication Co-ordinator at the Institute for Child Protection Studies. Erin has worked in peak bodies within the ACT youth and community sector for the past six years, undertaking a range of policy, advocacy, representation and sector/workforce development activities.

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